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Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

December 2, 2010 at 1:06 PM

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Civil Disagreement: Book Bans at Public Schools

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today the colleagues discuss controversial books amid news that Huxley's "Brave New World" has been targeted in the public schools.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Bruce, I'm one of the few people not dreaming of trading these dreary, wintry days for spot on a Maui beach. I actually like winters in the Northwest because the rain, chill and - this year - expected snow storms offer plenty of time to curl up in a chair next to a big old stack of books.

And speaking of books, I'm putting "Brave New World" on my reading list. Aldous Huxley's satirical novel is a classic but more importantly according to this story it is in danger of being pulled from the Seattle Public Schools' list of approved books for language-arts classes.

To be clear, "Brave New World," would not be banned, but its potential fall from favor could give all but the most courageous teachers pause.

It is an interesting business, this deciding what books are fit for broad consumption. Particularly so when dealing with young, impressionable minds, some of whom do not have adults at home able to offer the appropriate educational support.
Did you know that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the 4th most banned books in schools according to Banned in the U.S.A.. There is a school district that will not stock Harry Potter books because of the books' themes around witchcraft. But some books do offend the senses, even as one makes allowances for the weight of history.

I know Bruce that we'll agree that books, like public documents, should not be kept from the public. But I do think the role of education is to educate and that includes careful deliberation and crafting of how to present some books.

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I am in favor of allowing students to read whatever books their teachers want and their parents can stand. I was lucky that way. In junior high I read a left-wing book (Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle") and a right-wing book (Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged"). I read Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" at home, along with "Tom Sawyer." I read J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" in about the ninth grade. I don't think these books damaged me, and there wasn't a great stink about any of them. The only thing I can remember that I had to have a signed form to see was Leni Riefenstahl's film, "Triumph of the Will," which was Nazi propaganda. That was in high school. We had to go on a field trip to Seattle University to see it, and it was clearly labeled as propaganda. That was the point of seeing it.

I get annoyed at people who are so thin-skinned that they can't take a book that has characters that use words considered racist today, or that imagine witchcraft, etc., and therefore want to ban the book for all the kids. And yet it will happen. As a practical matter there is a limit to what the public schools can offer. I have to accept that.

One idea is to take the books on the no-no list and make a 12th grade elective class of them: "Here are the books we wouldn't teach you." It could be a very interesting class.

The issue of what books to have in the high school library is different from what books to teach. There is less of an endorsement in putting a book in the library than in putting it in the curriculum, but there is a measure of endorsement still. There are limits to what you can have in a high school library, too, but they should be very broad. "Huck Finn" should be in. "Brave New World," too. And "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." And "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Jungle." All that stuff: In.

Lynne replies: Bruce, that class would be standing room only I'm sure. I"m surveying neighboring districts such as Bellevue, Renton and Lake Washington to see how they choose their literature lists and which, if any, books they've had to dropp. I'll report back when I know something.

Another perspective to add: It isn't about withholding books as much as it is about preparing young minds for what they're about to read. I've heard complaints from minority parents who didn't want their children to open, unprepared, a book that uses racial epithets like in "Huck Finn." I've had white parents tell me they wouldn't want their young children to stumble upon "Native Son," without a cogent discussion of discrimination in America, lest their child walk away feeling either defensive or ashamed.
Adults, some, can make sense of these tough issues, but asking a 15-year-old to wrestle alone with tough issues of racial and gender discrimination or genocide or incest, is asking too much.

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